Skull & Bones: This is What It’s Like to Launch A Stellar Underwear Brand

Written by | Featured LGBT Friendly Businesses

Skull & Bones Subway

(Courtesy of Skull And Bones)

Vincent Pilato, founder of the Skull & Bones brand known for its cutting edge fashion, knows a thing or two about what’s going on behind men’s pants.

Underwear has come a long way from the ’60s tighty-whities and the sports heroes of the ’70s trying to convince straight men that wearing colored briefs under their pants did not, in fact, make them gay.

But for gay men, those shorts were only a harbinger of things to come. Over time, underwear has become a fashion for some, fetish for others and function for all the rest. In terms of men’s clothing, it’s one of the most competitive areas in the industry.

Hidden Treasure

Combining one founder’s expertise in the fashion industry with the other’s technology skills with their shared passion for innovation – Skull & Bones was born. Pilato and his business partner started working on Skull & Bones in 2014, then launched their first collection online in November a year later. By utilizing their expertise in product development and production, with their sense of style and industry knowledge, hey reimagined men’s underwear.

Unlike some, Skull & Bones is a self-funded company. Both founders grew up in NYC, which they regard as “the epicenter of fashion and design.” As co-owners they are involved in every element of their business, from counting inventory to answering customer emails.

Skull & Bones founder Vincent Pilato

(Photo courtesy Vincent Pilato)

We caught up with Pilato long enough to ask a few questions about how — and why — someone would jump into such a competitive field.

A Pirate’s Life for Me

METROSOURCE: How does a person decide to get into a highly competitive market like underwear? I know you also create other items of clothing, but that’s really your focus, right?

Pilato: Creating an underwear line for men came from a conversation I had with my husband — then boyfriend —years ago. He had just gotten his first job at a fashion company after recently graduating from F.I.T.; he was so excited from his first day and was telling me about his experiences. It was during that conversation when he mentioned that it was his passion to start his own fashion line. I mentioned we should make a men’s underwear line, as one of my passions was finding better quality, cut and fitted underwear. This was about 20 years ago, when we were both just starting our lives together. That idea stayed in our minds and conversations for about 15 years until we actually started Skull & Bones.

Yes, we make other categories of clothing but underwear is our core. We’ve already completed designs of our 2021 collections and have begun designing in to 2022. Underwear is still our focus and passion.

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METROSOURCE: Underwear certainly has come a long way from the tighty-whities of our grandfathers. What sets Skull and Bones apart from the competition?

Pilato: Our one line descriptor on our Instagram profile is “Where Bold Patterns Reign and Quality is Supreme ”.. Aesthetics, fit, comfort and durability drive what we produce and what ultimately becomes the finished product that lands in the hands of Skull & Bones customers. It’s a process, where both design and quality are equally important, and what wearers of Skull & Bones have come to expect.

METROSOURCE: How did you come up with the name and brand identity? What message do you think it sends?

Pilato: When Rob and I decided to start an underwear line a little over five years ago, we knew the direction of the brand in terms of style and feel. The challenge was the name. When you’re so close to something, it’s difficult to stand back and look at the brand detached as something commercial; something universal that can appeal to many people. One day we were out shopping and I noticed how skulls were being used in high fashion. I turned to Rob and said we should name our brand Skull & Bones. The next step was to design our logo, that process took almost a year, something that did not look like a pirate flag. Our logo certainly adds to our brand identity,

I don’t know if there is a specific message, as opposed to a feeling or understanding that Skull & Bones represents a discernible style that can be at times polished, edgy, sexy or fun, but its comfort and quality is always constant across all of our collections.

Underwear model Skull & Bones

(photo courtesy Skull & Bones)

Behind the Brand

METROSOURCE: Tell me about your design team. Where do the patterns and ideas come from? And how does something wind up in the collection? Can you take me through your process?

Pilato: We design into the four seasons of the year… spring, summer, fall and winter/holiday. Each collection starts with a storyboard, which are concepts of color, feelings or upcoming trends. Many concepts come from ideas or inspirations Rob and I get from our interactions with New York, where we both grew up and work every day.

For instance, this spring one of our favorite collections comes from a concept we have wanted to develop for a while, a day in Coney Island. The boardwalk, beach, the cyclone, cotton candy, etc. We were able to identify those elements and came up with a color palate for the collection to have a cohesive story for the designs. Our graphic designers then introduced the concept and our ideas for prints. They take on design parts that represent the concept. Once those designs are tweaked and finalized, we choose waistband designs, colors for binding, gussets and our embroidered logo that goes on almost everything we make.

Briefs or Boxers?

METROSOURCE: Do sales tell you whether guys are more into briefs, boxer briefs or something else these days, or is the market fairly evenly divided?

Pilato: There are a few data points that help us make decisions on what silhouette and quantities to produce. Large companies have marketing teams that do that research for them; we don’t have that luxury. Instead we rely on prior seasons’ sales performance and direct customer feedback, which is our most valuable tool.

We have wonderful customers who interact with our website or reach out to us on our social media letting us know what they like, love or want. We also do a lot of pride festivals where we have the privilege to meet people who wear Skull & Bones. They share their experiences with the product and we bring that back to design and production. At the moment, our sales are fairly even between briefs and trunks. We have a certain customer who loves boxer briefs and we’ve been including more of them into our assortment.

One Happy Package

METROSOURCE: You also seem to have chosen a very specific fabric or fabric blend. How much is that a part of your branding?

Pilato: Our very first collection we had a beautiful pima cotton modal spandex fabric, which worked well for the color blocked trunks we started with. For the next season and thereafter, print driven designs became very important for us. Our designs, like our hand painted dutch floral, work best when they are digitally printed. The pima cotton fabric did not lend itself to digital printing. The designs just looked washed out. The current fabric we use for our prints is incredibly soft and breathable, and our printed designs look superb on it. For solids (Just the Bones) line, we use the cotton modal spandex blend which is super soft and comfortable. Our established and new customers are always providing feedback on how soft and comfortable the fabrics are that we use.

Taking Pride

METROSOURCE: Clearly since you have an assortment of Pride underwear, you know that at least some of your clientele is gay. How do you keep them in mind without pandering to them?

Pilato: That’s an interesting question. One of our first prints we did was a beautiful ombre; colors we gleaned from the sky when the sun sets — reds, oranges, yellows, blues and purples. A rainbow of sorts, just not all the traditional colors of a rainbow. That print was so popular, especially at the pride events we did that year, people were buying that style and calling it a Pride Print. We were happy about that, we indirectly created something that our community related to on a different level.

Skull & Bones Pride underwear

(Pride collection/ courtesy Skull & Bones)

The next season we went to our designers and asked for another ombre — we have an ombre now for almost every season. They came up with a print that had hues of white pink and blue. It was so pretty, and again at the Pride events. This time, the Trans community absolutely loved that, buying that ombre and putting on the tanks and trunks right there and wearing them for the weekend.

The sense of pride they took from being a part of a community and identifying in part by wearing clothing that somewhat matched colors of their flag. It wasn’t intentional that we released a collection with the colors of the Trans flag, but the reaction to both of those ombre designs empowered us to formally design what became our first formal Pride collection last season. We stand for inclusivity and want everyone to feel proud about wearing Skull & Bones. For Spring 2020, I truly believe the pride capsule we’ve designed is our best yet.

Down Under

METROSOURCE: What are your most popular items and why do you think customers gravitate toward them?

Pilato: Our most popular collection by far is our Hand Painted Dutch Floral collection. Generally we never repeat print from one season to the next, but the Dutch Floral print has become a perennial that we bring back every season. Everyone responds to the design and the colors of the florals in the prints. Also our Just The Bones Line, the solids; they’re also our best sellers.

METROSOURCE: Is there an area of clothing you’d like to expand into?

Pilato: There are so many areas we want to expand into. We’re still a relatively small company and have to choose strategically what and when we introduce new items. I think you’ll see additional new silhouettes coming to your underwear line in the next few seasons as well as some outerwear and accessories.

Scanning the Horizon

METROSOURCE: Where do you see your success so far taking you?

Pilato: For a business, there are many indicators in measuring success — profit and loss margins, the longevity in which you are in operation. But there’s also a personal level of success both Rob and I can point to on this journey. A great deal of self-confidence, that’s a true success.

It can be a scary proposition to be a fully self-funded startup — that winter home in Palm Springs is on hold, by the way. You come into any situation, project, or in this case, a new business with a certain set of skills. Rob brought his production skills. We both know design, and I have some tech skills. Other than that, we knew what we knew and that we didn’t know a great many things. We looked to others to get help in certain areas where we didn’t have a great deal of experience, and what we found through trial and error is at the end of the day, we really needed to trust our own instincts. We’ve learned to do that and we’re stronger and better off for it.

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Last modified: January 26, 2020